Newcomer ready to challenge Dixon

GOP's Campbell stresses his work for other politicians

October 16, 1999|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

No one can accuse Antonio Wade Campbell of setting his sights too low -- or biding his time too long.

He made his first try for elected office last year, going after Maryland's 7th District congressional seat and finishing a distant second in the Republican primary.

After running unopposed in last month's GOP primary, he is taking on veteran Democratic City Councilwoman Sheila Dixon in the election Nov. 2 for council president.

Campbell's pursuit of these offices has come despite his being a month shy of his 34th birthday and a member of the GOP for less than five years.

Nonetheless, he sounds like a lifelong Republican when talking about the opportunity for his party after a third of a century of Democratic domination in the city.

"We've been going down the same road, putting the same rotisserie of candidates in office. They've all had a `D' beside their name, and look where we are," he said.

Dixon, a 12-year council veteran, believes Campbell does not have the background to hold the city's second most powerful elective office.

"He has no experience," said Dixon. "He's never been on the council. He needs to do his homework. I don't think he's done a thorough job in knowing about city government."

Campbell, who teaches music at several private and religious schools, points to his work over the years in several congressional offices and campaigns, Democratic and Republican.

"Council president would be a good fit," he said.

Thin and bespectacled, with a prematurely receding hairline and a faint hint of a mustache, Campbell projects an almost scholarly air. He speaks as smoothly and surely delivering a position paper on education on the steps of school headquarters as he does answering questions in his stocking feet in the living room of the home he shares with his wife, Lorraine, in Ednor Gardens, just north of Memorial Stadium in Northeast Baltimore. In addition to being a music teacher, Campbell is a representative for a company that helps obtain college scholarships for students in the arts.

"He's got a cool demeanor," said David R. Blumberg, the longtime former head of the city's Republican Party and Campbell's campaign treasurer. "He's thoughtful, but he doesn't take himself too seriously. He's got street smarts, he's got savvy.

"If he were a Democrat, he would have been elected to something a while ago."

Campbell was raised in a Democratic household in Beaver Falls, Pa., the oldest of three sons of a steelworker and his wife. His parents, who moved to Baltimore in 1984 after his father lost his job, are still Democrats.

After completing a three-year stint in the Army in 1986, Campbell moved to Baltimore. For five years, he held a series of jobs, including restaurant manager and car salesman.

In the early 1990s he began to get involved in politics, first as an unpaid college intern in the Baltimore office of U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, then as a worker in the district offices of Pittsburgh-area Democratic congressmen Ron Klink and Michael F. Doyle.

David Lucas, Doyle's chief of staff, said Campbell started workas a volunteer on Doyle's first congressional campaign in 1994.

"He showed some talent and strength, working with people and getting things done," said Lucas.

When Doyle was elected, Campbell was hired to work in the congressman's suburban Pittsburgh office. "He was one of our caseworkers in the district office, largely focused on veterans issues," said Lucas.

Campbell went to work for the committee trying to draft retired Gen. Colin L. Powell to run for president. Though his stint was brief and his contact with Powell limited -- "I talked to him maybe five times" in five months, Campbell said -- it was in many ways a dream job.

"He's always been one of my heroes," Campbell said. "There are few people who come along who have that aura of integrity. I was probably the most heartbroken person in America when he decided not to run."

Campbell's experience may not have changed his life, but it did persuade him to change his party affiliation after meeting such African-American Republicans as Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma and Joe Rogers, lieutenant governor of Colorado.

"They believe the same things I do -- taking responsibility instead of blaming somebody else," Campbell said.

In 1996, he worked as a strategist in Democratic state Del. Kenneth C. Montague Jr.'s unsuccessful campaign to succeed Kweisi Mfume as Maryland's 7th District congressional delegate in a March special election, and helped run Republican Pat McDonough's unsuccessful effort to unseat U.S. Democratic Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin in the 3rd District.

His first foray into politics came last year, when he finished a distant second in a three-way race in the Republican primary for the 7th District seat, behind perennial candidate Kenneth Kondner.

"That was a disappointment," he said. "We ran up against name identification."

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